The Edge of the World

March 2016

Back in Riyadh again…

The Edge of the World… one of the major “tourist”attractions near Riyadh… a must see for any expat in Saudi Arabia. Check out Blue Abaya’s Guide to the Edge of the World as well… http://www.blueabaya.com/2012/08/guide-to-edge-of-world.html

Not too far outside Riyadh, the Tuwaiq escarpment drops away to nothing but hazy desert for miles and miles as far as one can see. The cliffs are magnificent and terrifying… but so breathtakingly beautiful.

We rode out across the desert in strong, sturdy 4×4 vehicles… across soft sand and rocky desert… through a small flat plain with scrabbly bushes and many camels…

…Up steep hills to the top of the escarpment.

The world just seemed to drop away. It did really seem like the “Edge of the World!”

In the bright sunlight, (thank goodness for the cool breeze!),  we climbed up loose rock covered hills, and down another steep rocky hill and over to a narrow point, protruding far above the desert floor below…

Heart pounding I stepped out onto the mandatory precipice for a quick photo… hoping the unruly wind wouldn’t suddenly push against me, as I felt quite feeble and insignificant so high up there on that rocky ledge…

A friend climbed up to a small cave at the top of an even higher rock formation… and dropped his sunglasses. We watched them free fall for what seemed like hours until they disappeared from view and smashed at the bottom of the cliff…

Ummm yeah… now I’ll definitely be even more cautious around that edge!!! :/

It was absolutely worth the bit of anxiety climbing over the rocks and standing on those rock Ledges… the view was just so stunning…

IMG_3070

So, If you’re not living in Saudi Arabia or have never had the chance to live in Saudi Arabia… I hope you do get the chance to go and visit this beautiful country  and experience its culture and unique natural beauty for yourself someday!

Halong Bay

Feb 9-12, 2016

Halong Bay was just absolutely gorgeous and everything I ever dreamed it would be from the minute we arrived at the warf of Halong Bay! Pictures absolutely do not do it justice! (Not my pictures anyways!!)

Halong Bay in the Gulf of Tonkin is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the 7 wonders of the Natural World.

We booked a 3 day boat tour of Halong Bay and Cat Ba Island via Vega Travel... it was a great experience with them and Cat Ba Island was an awesome addition. Our trip to Halong Bay started with a lengthy, bumpy, nausea inducing wild bus ride from Hanoi through the Red River Delta to the warf. The upside… wifi on the bus! The downside to wifi on the bus… finding out all our friends from our Mai Chau trip had food poisoning!!! It was a tense bus ride as we wondered whether the nausea we were experiencing was the onset of food poisoning for us or just the wild ride!  (Turns out… we lucked out and never got it!!!)

We spent the next 2 days on a junk boat traveling through Halong Bay. Junk boats are traditionally a Chinese sailing ship with unique sails that were quite aerodynamic and made the boat easy to control. Below: junk boats in Lan Ha Bay.

img_2674

When we first got out the boat and headed out, it was absolutely gorgeous and sunny!! The view was so clear and you could see the layers of limestone mountains and islands in the turquoise sea. Many of the limestone islands are little more than a pillar, or appear to be perched on smaller limestone pillars as they have been eroded by thousands of years of water that have also formed many caves, coves and arches…   It was incredibly picturesque! We travelled through all the little islands and inlets of a less busy bay called Bai Tu Long Bay.

Mid afternoon, we anchored in a peaceful lagoon where Bai Tu Long Bay, Ha Long Bay and Lan Ha Bay meet. It was too cool at this time of year for swimming in the gorgeous turquoise waters but it was beautifully sunny for kayaking around the bay. Amelia and I shared a kayak and paddled through a limestone tunnel grotto called Hang Luon into a gorgeous lagoon completed surrounded by tall limestone mountains with the only opening the small tunnel we passed through to access lagoon.

Along the shore wild monkeys played and did the nasty in the trees. Giggles. But I got a selfie with a monkey. He wasn’t a particularly willing participant though. And apparently they’re a bit naughty so we we advised not to get too close to shore.

After paddling peacefully around, we went back to boat and transferred to in a small motor boat for a little climb up to the top of Titop mountain on Titop Island for 360 degree sunset views of Halong Bay, Lan Ha Bay and Bai Tu Long Bay. It was absolutely stunning!!!

After watching the sunset, we headed back in the afterglow to spend the night on our junk boat. The little boat we were in died though… so we were stuck on the boat out on the water for a while before it was sorted and we actually got back to the junk boat for dinner.

We awoke the next morning to gorgeous views of calm, placid Halong Bay from our stateroom window!

img_2425

After breakfast, we transferred to a little island to visit a cave called Han Sung Sot (Surprising Cave) to check out the beautiful limestone formations inside.

We did a small walk about the island near the docks and found a beautiful viewpoint of the bay we were in… back on the dock, a Vietnamese woman paddled along in a little boat, small fish frying on a little stove on the boat, selling sodas and water and snacks…

Back on our junkboat, we headed out through the various bays to Cat Ba Island where we would spend the next night and day. It was a bit cloudy and moody out, not as bright and sunny, but it was still absolutely gorgeous travelling through all the limestone islands and seeing the beautiful limestone formations they formed…

One of my absolute favourite sights from the whole trip through Halong Bay was going through a large fishing village. Cua Van is one of the largest and wealthiest of 4 major fishing villages in Halong Bay. It is home to hundreds of people who relay largely on fishing for income. It was unbelievable to see a whole town in a placid emerald bay nestled among the limestone mountains with water “roads”, brilliantly colored floating homes and boats… a grocery store and a gas station even… and a Vietnamese fisherman rowing a traditional boat down one of the water roads…

Cat Ba Island. One of the largest islands in the bay, a large portion of it is a national park that is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is a rugged, rocky, jungle island with a large variety of habitats… limestone karsts, tropical limestone forests, coral reefs, mangrove and sea grass beds, lagoons, beaches, caves, and willow swamp forests. We docked here and picked up bicycles to cycle around a portion of the island. We cycled along the seawall and into some small villages. There was a pretty good sized hill we had to cycle up which our bikes were definitely not designed for (or at least not designed to make it easier going up anyways!)

At one point we ditched the bikes and treked through a portion of the rainforest along narrow trails, attempting to cross streams on logs and not fall in and get soaked, and up some pretty sketchy rocks into a bat cave and out through it to an opening overlooking a farmland valley in the center of the island.

After a night in a hotel on Cat Ba Island, we headed back through Halong Bay on our junk boat to return back to the Hanoi. It was a thoroughly relaxing day spent on the boat just watching the most gorgeous scenery I’ve ever seen in the world go by… before saying goodbye to our fabulous tour guide and the lovely people we met on our Halong Bay tour!

And then… we were back in Hanoi, for one last night at a terribly sketchy hotel near the airport for our last night before we’d head back to Ho Chi Minh and onwards back to Saudi.

Flying back to Ho Chi Minh, we had a good bit of time between our arrival in Saigon and departure back to Riyadh, so we ended up heading into the city again to go check out the War Remnants Museum as we’d not really seen many museums or historical things like that and this museum was supposed to be really good. And it was! So much interesting and devastating history on display… it’s terrible the things we humans have done to each other actually… 😦

Back at the airport… one last Vietnamese coffee…

img_2808

One last drink in freedom… bought with probably 200,000 Vietnamese dong… (like 5 Canadian dollars or so)… an airport backpack picture or two… because my very first ever backpacking trip needed to be documented… and then we were off to Saudi again… to our temporary reality.

I remember friends telling me before we left for Vietnam that of all the many places they’d been in the world, Vietnam was their favourite or at the top of their list of favourites… and now after visiting just a fraction of the country, I can totally understand why. Aside from its stunning natural beauty, the people were so warm and welcoming and friendly and the culture and history is fascinating especially given the dynamics of it being a Communist country and it’s history with America and the Vietnamese war.

So… of all the places I’ve been in the world, Vietnam comes the most highly recommended! So get out there and go check it out! It’s gorgeous!!!!!

Finally… Hanoi

Feb 4-5, 2017

After our 2 luxurious days in Da Nang at the gorgeous Naman Retreat, we once again took a terrible little Vietnamese airline flight after many many delays to Hanoi this time… our most Northern stop in Vietnam… the capital city of Vietnam and the city most commonly affiliated with one of the most beautiful places in the world… Halong Bay.

This was probably the stop we were looking forward to the most. We had planned to spend a few days in Hanoi for Vietnamese New Year and then carry on to Halong Bay for a few days cruise before leaving Vietnam.

Our hostel in Vietnam was fantastic. Great location in the Old Quarter. Great vibes here too… met some wonderful people on our first night… hit up a pub crawl through more tiny little completely not safety standard approved hole in the wall bars… and had so much fun that the next day was not very much fun at all!

On our first day in Hanoi, we learned that the city would pretty much shut down over the next few days for Vietnamese New Year… there would be a lot of celebrations and festivities but no restaurants or sight seeing locations would be open. So basically we could party in the streets and not much else…

My friend and I weren’t particularly keen to stay in noisy, smelly, dirty, chaotic Hanoi. The traffic was absolutely insane!!! And the smells were atrocious! And we yearned for somewhere quieter and calmer, somewhere lush and green, somewhere surrounded by nature.

Turns out our hostel had a homestay out in Mai Chau… a small town out in the country further up North a couple hours drive from our hostel. We wouldn’t be able to make it out to Sapa on this trip so we welcomed the opportunity to get out of the noisy, congested city to the lush, green land of rice paddies and emerald green terraces…

We spent our one day in Hanoi walking around the city near our hostel.

We visited the “Lake of the Restored Swords,” or Hoàn Kiem Lake … the center of Hanoi life. We weren’t awake early enough to see it but in the mornings there are many people here doing their morning exercises… There is a beautiful red bridge, Huc Bridge, leading to a pagoda in the lake which we wandered through as well. And in the center of the lake is Turtle Tower (Tháp Rùa).

Every country has a story to tell… and unfortunately Vietnam’s story isn’t only about beaches and rice paddies and beautiful limestone mountains or pretty lanterns… It also has a sad and complex history that involves a lot of unnecessary war and hatred and violence. We visited the Hoa Lo Prison in Hanoi… it felt so heavy and dark inside the prison… I could feel the centuries of suffering and pain and torment weighing down on me!

It was definitely not easy to see but a good reality check and pause to stop for a moment to be thankful for our freedom and the relative ease with which we’ve lived our lives so far!

Finally… after spending a few hours wandering the city… we found some proper Western breakfast food… at a super cute cafe that we could have found in any Western/European city… where they served up THE BEST french toast I’ve ever had!!!! (I know… shame on me for not experiencing local delicacies… but hungover girls just gotta have some normal homey comfort food every now n then!)

Now… The joys of backpacking and travel… Laundry in the sink at our hostel cuz all the laundry shops are closed for New Years! Hung out at the hostel for the evening and then Mai Chau in the morning!

I can’t wait to get out to countryside!!!

Spa Days in Da Nang

February 3-5, 2016

Life in Saudi Arabia, while often lovely and very enjoyable, is frequently extremely stressful and wears on you after a while. My friend and I were at a point in our Saudi Arabian journey where we desperately needed time to relax and de-stress. And while it may seem like we’re constantly vacationing and always relaxing, a trip through Vietnam is really not particularly relaxing! Which is why we checked ourselves into a fabulous spa resort, the Naman Retreat in Da Nang, for a couple nights to really relax so we’d be relatively rejuvenated on our return to Saudi Arabia!

The weather wasn’t in top form. It was a bit rainy and stormy. But the spa resort was blissfully green with water and foliage and beautiful nature every where! It was on the beach with several infinity pools that looked out over the ocean… every where were relaxing water sounds, birds chirping, gentle Asian spa music, the damp fresh smell of rain falling on lush vegetation, the peppermint scented spa, the gorgeous hibiscus tea on arrival and at the spa… It was a little piece of paradise for sure!!

On arrival at the hotel, we were seated with cups of warm hibiscus tea and warm cinnamon scented towels to freshen our hands while we checked in. It was so peaceful and relaxing right from the moment we arrived!

We didn’t do a whole lot with our time there other than eat delicious food in the several restaurants on the resort property…

Spent a lot of time looking out at the beach, several hours at the spa getting massages… Or enjoying the hot and cool spa pools and the sauna and steam room…

I spent hours walking/running the beach enjoying the storminess and the waves rushing in over my toes, the ocean spray on my face… It was absolutely gorgeous.

Also was a big fan of the hammocks they had draped between palm trees…

It was a gorgeous resort… Worth every precious penny (it wasn’t inexpensive like the rest of Vietnam!! But you pay for luxury like this, and it was a totally different experience than the typical hostel/backpacker in SE Asia experience… and it was WORTH IT!)… And I’m glad we were able to spend a couple days there relaxing!!! I felt so refreshed when we left. Which was great because we needed it for Hanoi!!

Overall, highly recommend the Naman Retreat if you’re looking for a spa stay in Da Nang!!

Exploring Hoi An

February 2016

Old Town Hoi An is beautiful. You’re about to be exposed to many pictures of cute little buildings. But I just couldn’t help myself. It’s such a pretty town with great vintage vibes. A hipster would go crazy in this place!

And on top of that, the various temples and pagodas were beautiful too. My favourite had the most stunning Bonsai tree arrangements! I can’t even imagine how many years it took to shape it into this beautiful piece of art!

We started the morning at the tailor, Tailor Phuong Nam, going through books of outfits, trying to figure out what we wanted made. Given my height and above average leg length, its extremely hard to find jumpsuits/rompers that fit… so I chose to have two jumpsuits made, one casual, one dressy. Thao of Tailor Phuong Nam was amazing. She measured us all up, and keeps our measurements for 5 years so that we can just email her pics of what we want made and she’ll make it and mail it to us! Super cool! And the service was so quick! We were only in Hoi An for 3 days but she easily made the short deadline! We found the place just walking past, but she gets brilliant reviews on TripAdvisor as well! So if you’re in Hoi An, check her out for sure (just follow the link above!).

After wandering around the Old Town for most of the morning and early afternoon, we decided to go cycling through the countryside in the afternoon and rented bicycles back at our hostel and went exploring along all the paths winding through the rice fields in the farmland surrounding the city. We encountered a farmer leading his water buffalo along the path… and some cows…

We ended up at An Bang Beach. A storm was blowing in so it was super windy… but I danced along the beach anyways! It feels amazing to be by the ocean again after being so landlocked for ages it seems in dusty, dry Riyadh! (I know, I was just in Dubai a week ago… but the beach there is pretty tailored and calm compared to this!)

Freedom is: dancing on the beach in Vietnam, being chased by waves… running and laughing and being filled completely with joy and happiness!

 

 

Next: Hoi An nights

February 2016

Stepping back in time… to a graceful, elegant, curious blend of Vietnamese and foreign cultures and architecture…

The 2nd destination on our Vietnam backpacking trip… Hoi An. Hoi An is located roughly on central coast of Vietnam and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Old Town Hoi An, the heritage site, is a well preserved South East Asian trading port that dates back to the 15-19th Century. The city is well known for its textiles and crafts (one of the best places in Vietnam to get anything tailor made!).

We left Saigon around noon, after the most terrifying cab ride in the OLDEST car I’ve ever ridden in (thanks for nothing hostel :S) img_0513-1 to the airport to fly to Da Nang (the closest airport to Hoi Ain, about a 20-30min cab ride away) because with only 2 weeks to see the country, we weren’t about to waste time on a bus.  Although local Vietnamese flights weren’t the timeliest either, and as we boarded the plane, I spotted our backpacks just hanging out underneath the fuselage of the plane… was really hoping they were planning on actually stowing them somewhere inside the bowels of the plane! (They did. We got the bags when we landed 🙂 )

As we arrived later in the day, by the time we checked into the Sunflower Hotel, an excellent hostel in Hoi An, we would get dusky/night views of the Old Town to start. Tourists are required to buy a pass to enter the town for 120,000 dong (peanuts in USD).

We walked from our hostel to the Old Town (about a 15-20min walk… an easy leg stretcher… plus plenty of shops to poke into along the way).

The Old Town at dusk is moody and reminds me briefly of a Victorian horror movie or something like that… but once fully dark,  as the lights come on, it’s colorful and brilliant and vibrantly cheerful.

From this…

To this…

We visited the Morning Glory restaurant for dinner where I wisely ordered a 5spice pork belly that was DELICIOUS. My friend not so wisely chose a crispy red snapper… which happened to be the full fish… dipped in batter… and deep fried. We westerners are definitely not so familiar getting food with eyes in it still! She didn’t even know how to get at the meat and was vaguely repulsed by it :S I think it was tasty though once she had the waitress dissect it. (as a note… safe food here… pretty touristy though… if you’re someone who likes to eat with the locals).

The street view from the balcony of the Morning Glory was pretty though. I LOVED all the lanterns and lights strung across the streets everywhere!

We finished the evening with a walk around town, across the river with this super cool fish on it, to the Night market where we admired all the gorgeous colorful and printed Vietnamese lanterns.

And of course, the trademark site of the Old Town, the covered bridge was beautiful when lit up at night!

img_0588A much quieter town than Saigon for sure. I really loved the vibes here! Tomorrow we explore the town more… and the surrounding countryside!

Stopover: Minneapolis with my Bestie

After 3 months at home… the most intense family time I’ve ever had… spending nearly every day with my mom/sister/nieces… I knew that the only way I would be able to get on a plane and leave them for an extended period of time again to return to Saudi, would be to book a stopover somewhere… like in Minneapolis so that I could visit my best friend and pretend like I was just flying away for the weekend, instead of for potentially years…

I landed in Minneapolis in the evening and my bestie picked me up… it was a very very long year and a half probably since we’d seen each other last… and I love how whenever I see her, it’s really like no time has passed at all and we’re right where we left off last time!

We went downtown to the Guthrie Theatre to watch a live production of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” My first play ever! It was really beautiful and well performed!

Obvious cocktails and dessert were necessary after the play!!! It’s not a girls night without chocolate and a good martini!

The next day…we explored Minneapolis. Well.. downtown anyways! For the record… it’s a gorgeous city, especially in the fall!! I could make it my home for a while I think!!! Maybe one day…

We found a super cute little breakfast nook for delicious waffles with strawberries and cream…

IMG_0015

and then spent the remainder of the day just wandering around the city… checking out all the adorable little blobby people sculptures in the downtown area…

admiring the gorgeous fall colors everywhere…

and walked through Mill Park along the Mississippi River…

It was such a gorgeously sunny day… the sky was so blue and the fall leaves looked incredible everywhere.

But most of all… it was so wonderful to have a whole 24 hours to hang out with my best friend and catch up on life… it made it so much easier for me to leave home knowing that she’d be there to meet me in Minneapolis!

I’m going to miss this wonderful friend… like always… but looking forward to the next time I see her…